Every year on 1st May, the streets of Cagliari come alive with the largest and most colourful religious procession in the world. It is the Festival of Sant' Efisio and it has taken place here every year since 1656.
Efisio was a Roman officer sent to Sardinia by the Emperor Diocleziano to suppress christianity on the Island. However, during his time there, Efisio had an epiphany and rather than carrying out his orders, became a follower himself. When asked to renounce his new religion, he refused and was sentenced to death. He was initially imprisoned in Cagliari, and then moved secretly to a location on the coast for his execution, away from his many supporters. In the year 303 he was beheaded by a Roman soldier on the beach at Nora. A church was dedicated to him in Cagliari on the site where he was imprisoned and another at the place of his martyrdom.
In 1652, Sardinia was afflicted by a plague that killed half of the inhabitants of Cagliari. The population turned to their saint, Efisio di Elia, to save them. The authorities, in recognition of the tide of popular feeling, made an announcement that if the plague was halted by Saint Efisio, then the people would carry his statue in a procession from the church in Cagliari to the one in Nora, every year, for ever. The plague disappeared, and the people of Cagliari have kept their promise, every year, ever since.
Initially combined with the spring harvest festival, and involving a few local people, the procession has grown into a huge, colourful affair, involving thousands of people from all over Sardinia, taking part dressed in their national costumes. The festival lasts for four days and involves more than 5,000 people.
First, there are about 30 traditional 'Traccas', peasant carts drawn by oxen, decorated with flowers and traditional Sardinian produce. The "traccas" are followed by different groups of people all wearing the traditional costumes of their villages. They walk in procession, chanting or singing the traditional prayers that form part of the religious heritage of the island, creating a very evocative atmosphere. Among the most eye catching costumes are the orange coloured costumes from Desulo, the austere black dresses worn by the beautiful and very tall girls from Tempio, the traditional gold jewellery on the waistcoats of the costumes from Quartu and the barefooted fishermen from Cabras.
Next come the horsemen and women. Originally from the Campidano region, they form the most spectacular part of the festival as the procession winds its way along the streets of the old part of Cagliari, lined with huge crowds of spectators.
At midday, the statue of Saint Efisio leaves his church in Cagliari inside a seventeenth-century gold plated coach drawn by a pair of huge oxen and accompanied by two mace-bearers. In front are the 'Guardiania'. Dressed in black top hats and tails, they are from a religious order dedicated to Saint Efisio. They are followed by the 'AlterNos, representatives of the mayor and two lines of religious brothers and sisters in humble dress.
The whole procession is accompanied by the sound of the 'launeddas', traditional Sardinian pipes, that create a haunting atmosphere as the statue makes its was through the crowds. Many people lean forward to touch the coach as it passes. Efisio's reputation is very strong among the local people who also credit him with saving the city from a French seige in 1793, and for helping them to rebuild it after it was badly damaged during the second world war.
The procession makes its way through the streets of Cagliari, strewn with flowers, to be greeted with the sirens of the ships docked in the port of Cagliari, and the cheers of the crowds. The procession makes its way out of the city and through the countryside to Nora, accompanied by many smaller religious ceremonies and banquets to which all are welcome. On the evening of 4th May, the statue is brought back to Cagliari with a torchlit parade. Accompanied by the greeting "Altrus Annus", meaning "Other Years", Saint Efisio is returned to his church where he will remain until the next year's procession.